By Jason Keidel
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There are only a handful of non-football players in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Bill Polian is one of them. The brilliant former general manager and Bronx native once said that if you build a sports club based on the opinion of fans, you’ll soon be sitting with them.
Indeed. Now we suddenly hear that we just welcomed home the 1927 Yankees, swatting their way back to prominence, if not eminence.
You’ve heard the cliche, yet so few abide by it. A team is never as bad as it looks at its worst, or as good at its best. Hence the Yankees were not truly the bungling, last-place embarrassment of a week ago when they left for the West Coast.
Nor are they the juggernauts who came home to the East Coast after sweeping the pedestrian Oakland Athletics. The 19-26 A’s were most accommodating hosts for four days.
As of Monday night, there were 15 MLB teams with a better record than the Yanks, and two with an identical record. At 21-22, the Yankees are around the mean, where they seemed to be coming out of spring training.
There were no frothing pundits picking the Yanks to finish first in the AL East, to contend for a pennant, much less a World Series. Few had them stumbling to a 9-17 record and last place, either.
And the Yankees haven’t exactly won five straight by dusting off the Bronx Bombers moniker. They have won 13 of their last 19, averaging 4.53 runs per game in that span, just a whisker above the MLB average of 4.25 runs per game.
Nor has the team’s defense reminded you of the 1985 Cardinals. The Yankees’ fielding performance is equally suspect, with only four players on the roster having a net positive in defensive WAR, according to baseball-reference.com.
The Yanks rolled a bad team out in Oakland with some good pitching. They used the preseason algorithm of six innings from the starter and then close the coffin with three innings from their holy bullpen trinity of Dellin Betances, Andrew Miller, and Arolids Chapman — or “No Run DMC” as Jack Curry cleverly coined the trio. The Yanks are 16-1 when leading after six innings, and are 20-0 when leading after seven.
Unlike his predecessor, Joe Torre, who sapped every cell from the arms in his bullpen, Joe Girardi is considered more pitching prudent. But it’s awfully tempting to send those three flamethrowers out every night, particularly when they look so potent.
The Yanks just don’t have the horses in the rotation to spell their electric ‘pen. So on the nights when the pitching firm of Betances, Miller, and Chapman is taking a breather, the rest of the team will breathe most uneasily. Indeed, only four of the club’s 21 wins came without an appearance of one of those three fireballers. Case in point, the Bombers are 5-21 when they’re tied or trailing after six innings.
Since the Yankees don’t seem destined to score runs at record rates, they will need more and more good pitching, but can you trust this staff?
The good news is, the Yanks are 18-8 in games started by Masahiro Tanaka, Nathan Eovaldi, CC Sabathia, and Ivan Nova. That’s a robust, .692 winning percentage. Bad news is, they are 3-14 in games started by Michael Pineda and Luis Severino, two of the younger bucks who were supposed to anchor the rotation.
And the ERA of the Yankees’ rotation is one of the five worst in the American League.
So while we can all cheer for CC for his bulldog work ethic and courage while dealing with his alcoholism, he’s still a hulking, aging man who will turn 36 in July and likely won’t hold up all season, much less get stronger. Sabathia hasn’t won 10 games in three years and hasn’t been dominant in four.
Tanaka has a balky elbow that could snap anytime. And Nova is a proven, pitching head case. So there are more than enough variables to keep the Tums in arm’s reach.
There have been some good signs this season, and some ominous ones. But take the good streaks and the bad streaks and you still have a team with 21 wins and 22 losses. It’s been 23 years since the Yanks last lost more games than they won. Will this be the year they drown under the .500 waters?
We won’t know in May. But either way, they’re hovering around their mean, which will mean another forlorn fall in the Bronx. It doesn’t take Polian to know an average club when you see one.
Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel